- Historic Sites
A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!
The Big Ditch had so far been a colossal flop, and Teddy Roosevelt desperately needed an engineering genius who could take over the job and “make the dirt fly.” The answer was not the famous Goethals, but a man whom history has forgotten.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Any men who were not needed, now that the digging had stopped, he sent home. They would be hearing from him later, he said. The rest he put to work building decent housing, mess halls, hospitals, schoolhouses, churches, jails—whole communities. Under his direction approximately five thousand new buildings were built, old French facilities refurbished, streets paved, and new harbor installations, a sewage disposal plant, and water mains put in. He installed a telephone system. He established a commissary to feed the entire force at cost. He introduced refrigeration equipment, something unknown in Panama, and the men began eating dressed meats, eggs, and perishable vegetables for the first time. He built clubhouses and organized band concerts and a baseball league, with each settlement along the line getting up its own team. When a young clerk told him there were no funds available to build seven or eight home fields, Stevens said to charge them to sanitary expenses. For months he had twelve thousand men doing nothing but putting up buildings. The most imposing structure, the Tivoli Hotel, was rushed to completion when it became known that Roosevelt was coming down to visit.
Previous plans were for the chief engineer to be quartered in a palatial residence to be built overlooking Panama Bay. But Stevens wanted no part of that. He and his family would live on the side of Culebra Cut, he said, where he could watch the work progress from his front porch. So he had a plain house with a corrugated roof put up there.
But for all his talk of cold feet, Stevens had a very realistic fear of yellow fever and considered it the one overriding threat to success. He said as much only in private, but unlike his predecessor—or his successor—as chief engineer he had total confidence in the courtly and dedicated Gorgas, and he decided at the outset that giving Gorgas whatever he needed to do the job was the only sensible course.
Gorgas was the doctor who had rid Havana of yellow fever, but many people, completely discounting his mosquito theory, considered him a crank all the same. Commission Chairman Shonts, for example, wanted Stevens to fire Gorgas first thing. Stevens, however, with Roosevelt’s blessing, made Gorgas the second most powerful man on the Isthmus and backed him up whenever his methods came under fire. Every dwelling in the Zone would be fumigated. Stagnant pools would be sprayed with kerosene, drainage ditches built, rain barrels dumped, grass kept cut—everything possible to destroy the breeding places of the stegomyia and anopheles mosquitoes, the respective carriers of yellow fever and malaria. And all new buildings were fitted out with wire screens. Gorgas’ original budget for medical supplies had been fifty thousand dollars; before he was through, Stevens would sign requisitions for ninety thousand dollars for window screening alone.
By October there would be only a few cases of yellow fever; by December, just one. After that there would be none at all, and the Zone would remain “as safe as a health resort,” as Roosevelt put it. Indeed, no labor force in history had ever been so handsomely provided for.
Stevens saw the job of building the Canal itself as chiefly one of transporting dirt rather than digging it. Culebra Cut was, in his eyes, a gigantic railroad cut—nothing more. All that was needed was a proper system to haul the dirt out. He was to write: To get the maximum efficiency out of any loading machine, steam shovel or dragline, the boom must be kept swinging every possible minute of the time. And this can only be accomplished by keeping empty cars, or trucks, always at hand to receive their loads from the machines. In this case it was wholly a matter of steam railroad operation.
This, of course, was precisely what he knew best.
The little Panama Railroad was overhauled and double-tracked with heavier rails. Most important of all, he devised an elaborate but elastic system of tracks leading out of Culebra Cut, whereby loaded cars always ran on a downgrade. The Cut itself he would slice back with gigantic steam shovels operating along a series of long steps, or benches, as they are known in surface mining, a subject with which Stevens had had some experience in the iron-ore fields of Minnesota. The material to be excavated was a miserable combination of clay and shale that, once exposed, had almost no stability. During the rainy season, or more than half the year, sudden cloudbursts would bring on terrible slides along the Cut. The French, during their stay on the Isthmus, had found it everything they could do just to keep pace with the slides.
The simplest way to cope with the problem—the only way, really—was to keep digging at the sides of the Cut, reducing the angle all the time. Since there was ample room in which to work, no pre-existing structures in the way, or other traffic of any kind, the Cut, in theory at least, could be as broad as was necessary. So the main objective was to marshal the right equipment in sufficient quantity. It was all a matter of “magnitude not miracles,” Stevens wrote.